18.11.14

Periods are no longer a pain

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Today (19th) is World Toilet Day, in low-income countries more than 200 million menstruating females do not have access to adequate menstrual hygiene. Thanks to Plan’s help, a cheap, washable sanitary pad is allowing girls to get back to school.

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Uganda

Caption: Sanitary pads are trimmed and stacked before being lined and sewn at the AfriPads factory in Kitengeesa, Uganda myne

WHEN teenager Catherine, 15, first got her period, she used to bunk off school because she found it too embarrassing to deal with the rags.

“Sometimes blood would come out onto my skirt,” she explains, “or the rags can even fall down when you are walking.”

In Uganda, as in most poor countries around the world, menstruation is a little talked about yet an immense and stressful problem for teenage girls.

Faced with the prospect of using rags or kitenge, newspaper, leaves or cotton wool to curb the flow of blood, most girls choose to stay off school when their period comes.

Moreover, the girls endure local cultural attitudes that stigmatise menstruating women and girls as dirty, and many are too ashamed to leave home while they are bleeding.

But missing school for an extended time once a month means they fall behind in the curriculum, putting them at an immediate disadvantage to their male peers.

Draw back from the situation and these millions of absences lead to generations of girls in poor countries with fewer qualifications, limited access to job opportunities and less time spent building social networks, confidence and life skills.

Maureen, 16, says she has missed a lot of school due to her period.

“I started my period when I was 15,” she explains. “My mother never talked to me about it, and when I first saw it, I was scared. My friends told me that when I start my periods I should use a rag. They didn’t explain it – they just told me to do it. So I tore up my old clothes and made the rags to use.”

“Every month I would miss three or four days. I was fearful of going to school when I had it.”

Perhaps this is why AfriPads is quietly taking Ugandan villages by storm.

The simple yet discreetly revolutionary system of washable, cloth sanitary pads that last for up to one year, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent supply of disposable pads, is convincing girls to go back to school during their periods.

Each kit contains a holder, pads and a storage bag to store pads if they cannot be washed immediately.

At USh12,000 to 15,000 (£2.75 to £3.40) per kit, even girls and women who can’t afford disposable sanitary towels – which can cost around USh42,000 or £9.60 a year – can afford this hygienic alternative to rags.

Sophia Klumpp, who co-founded the company in Uganda in 2009, says the key is the pads’ simplicity.

“[It’s] the ease of use, the price point and being able to buy something once with the security of knowing they have nothing to worry about for the next 12 months,” she says.

“The worst-case scenario is for a girl to stay at home from school altogether because they have no access to anything.”

At schools where AfriPads are distributed, teachers have reported that absenteeism has dropped sharply, as girls who previously did not have access to proper sanitary pads no longer stay at home when they have their periods.

Maureen now uses AfriPads, and are back in school full-time.

Florence, 19, is a pupil at Aputiri primary school, which participates in a Menstrual Health Management programme supported by Plan.

The programme, currently happening in 53 villages in Lira, Alebtong and Tororo, includes the distribution of AfriPads to local ‘dealers’ at a subsidised rate, as well as drama and awareness sessions on child marriage, domestic and sexual abuse and menstrual hygiene.

The talks are given to both girls and boys to help destigmatise the subject of menstruation.

In the playground, girls play netball, talk and giggle in huddles. Florence says the pads are better than cotton wool because they don’t leak, and she can do everything she would do normally.

“I used not to go to school because the blood would come out. But now I’m ok.”

At Achilet primary school, where Menstrual Health Management programme also runs, teacher Lovisa Wankya, runs sessions to demonstrate how to use the pads.

She is helped by teenage health prefect Peninah Mamayi, 15, who is also currently revising for exams.

“I wanted to be a health prefect so I could help my friends be clean,” explains Mamayi.

“I teach them about cleaning their latrines at home, keeping their compounds clean, cutting their hair and fingernails, washing their clothes. I tell them to bathe daily so they don’t smell, and to wash their AfriPads very well, and to dry them very well.”

Mamayi says the pads have improved her life dramatically. “They don’t disturb me, and I can just sit and be comfortable. Even if I play or I jump, nothing happens.”

Plan Uganda WASH Specialist Mary Namwebe says the programmme contributes indirectly to the retention and performance of girls in schools.

“It also helps promote gender equality more broadly as girls stay in school longer,” she adds. “They can earn a livelihood and have accurate information on how to manage their health effectively, so they are more likely to live with dignity and be productive members of society.”

Lovisa Wankya also runs a stall in front of her home in Tororo selling AfriPads to passers-by, and has been on the radio as personality ‘Madam Wankya’ to tell women about them.

Madam Wankya is just one of the many women in Tororo who have become official AfriPads dealers, running small businesses selling the pads.

The groups of up to 30 people – mainly women – are trained by Plan in business skills, then save money together to buy stocks of the pads, which they then sell o to make an income.

Another dealer, Sarah Angwech, is selling pads to William Okia, the father of five daughters.

“AfriPads have reduced my expenditure because I have five girls,” says William. “It’s USh35,00 (80 pence) per disposable, times five girls. You can see how AfriPads have saved me a lot of money!”

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